All the advantages without accepting|the inconveniences

The Nation
Published on Dec 31, 2001

Thank your very much for your commentary "Shutting camps is morally wrong" (The Nation, December 28). While putting up inhabitants of Maneeloy in Tham Hin camp (of all places possibly the worst, overcrowded and hazardous healthwise) and possibly deporting others to Burma (which would put them in the greatest danger) it seems to be necessary to point out that not only the National Security Council (traditionally taking a hard-line stance) but now also the Foreign Ministry are acting increasingly irrational and even in breach of the international obligations of Thailand. Some facts may need to be clarified:

a) There are different types of refugees from Burma in Thailand:

The smallest group are the recognised political refugees (those who have had to flee because they were prosecuted due to their political opposition to the regime in Rangoon; most of whom, but not all, are ethnic Burmese. They had mainly been housed at Maneeloy camp and almost all of them have been accepted for resettlement in Western countries.

Another group are people fleeing from fighting and its consequences (which, in reality, is fleeing from "ethnic cleansing", euphemistically called "four cuts policy" by the Burmese regime). These are mainly minority people (Karen, Karenni, Shan and others). About 130.000 of them (mostly Karen and Karenni) have been accepted under very strict admission criteria. They are being put up in a number of refugee camps along the border, where the Thai government has condemned them to almost complete inactivity.

All the needs of these refugees, ie food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc, are being entirely financed by the international community, again largely Western countries.

Not to be forgotten: Practically all the goods that are needed by these refugees are being locally procured so that Thailand effectively makes money out of this business.

Many others who are fleeing "fighting and its consequences". Among these are to be counted at least 130,000 Shan along the northern border of Thailand (mainly in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son). These people regularly have to fear being rejected and deported by Thai authorities and therefore try to hide. In order to survive they work illegally.

Finally there are those coming to Thailand for purely economic reasons: They cannot make ends meet at home and hope to earn more here. These are also being taken advantage of by Thai employers and consumers (ie, in the fisheries, textile and sex businesses).

b) While of course the regime in Rangoon is to blame in the first place for creating all this human misery it must not be forgotten that Thailand (or rather: certain Thais) also carry responsibility for the situation.

After the 1988 massacre crushing the democratic uprising, the military regime in Rangoon was in complete international isolation and economically in a desperate situation, until a senior Thai military personality found his "brother" there, concluded contracts (logging, mining, fishing concessions, etc) and saved the regime from collapse.

c) Some in the Thai security establishment (particularly the NSC) believe that people from Burma come to Thailand simply because life here is so much "sanuk" that they cannot resist the temptation, implying that it will be enough to make their lives miserable in order to stem the flow. The reality is: People flee from Burma to Thailand because they are desperate and have no other option.

d) Even in the absence of Thailand's accession to the International Convention on Refugees it has an obligation under international law to accept people fleeing from imminent danger to their lives. After the Thai "neutrality" in the fight against terrorism this is another striking example of Thai "compassion".

It all boils down to the attempt to take all the advantages while letting others foot the bill. Unfortunately this policy is not only immoral, it will also prove to be very costly.